Lukacs' century of nationalism: A fragmented history of Europe @

March 14, 1993|By Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn,Newsday

THE END OF THE TWENTIETH

CENTURY AND THE END

OF THE MODERN AGE.

John Lukacs.

Ticknor & Fields.

` 291 pages. $21.95.

By now it's a commonplace that the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 marked the end of the struggle between communism and capitalism. But it is also true that the collapse of the East bloc heralded a victory for a third contender from the 19th century: nationalism. The ethnic upheaval in Eastern Europe suggests that 1989 was more of a triumph for nationalism than for liberal democracy.

John Lukacs would agree. In "The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age," he seeks to examine recent European history in the context of nationalism. As a Hungarian who emigrated to the United States after World War II and as a distinguished historian, Dr. Lukacs would seem well-equipped to remedy other historians' neglect of nationalist forces in Eastern Europe. His graceful prose and keen insights have resulted in a ** number of fine works on Central Europe and the Cold War.

Unfortunately, these qualities are scarcely evident in this book. Rather than sticking to his announced theme of nationalism, Dr. Lukacs veers wildly in his discussion of European history.

Some of the most interesting passages are the vignettes that punctuate his historical analysis. Dr. Lukacs, who has an eye for the telling detail, vividly recounts his stays in Berlin and Hungary.

But the body of the book is garbled and frequently unintelligible. For one thing, his violent political prejudices are abundantly in evidence. Calling himself a true European conservative, he insists, for instance, that "national socialism survived Hitler. Every government of this globe has become a welfare state of sorts, and Eastern Europe is no exception." These are the words not of a conservative but of a crank.

As far as is possible to discern from this Cook's tour of European history, Dr. Lukacs holds nationalism responsible for each calamitous historical development in the 20th century. His animus against any variety of nationalism, peaceful or violent, seems to derive from his distress at the demise of the Aus

tro-Hungarian empire. It might seem late in the day to rue the collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy, but Dr. Lukacs clearly views the monarchy as a model of ethnic harmony. In truth, the Hapsburgs ensured their hold on power by fomenting, not suppressing, ethnic conflict.

Dr. Lukacs' fixation on the Austro-Hungarian empire leads him to dismiss the notion that the 20th century witnessed an ideological struggle between communism, Nazism and democracy. He contends that the 20th century has been nothing less than the age of nationalism. But this is a horse that will not run. Historians may have ignored the importance of nationalism in the 20th century, but Dr. Lukacs exaggerates its significance. This has a number of distorting effects.

Some of the most bizarre passages concern the Nazi era, in particular the description of Hitler. "Hitler himself," we are informed, "was an extreme nationalist rather than a racist." Of course, he was both. A nationalist pure and simple, such as Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic today, might have attempted to expel and even kill German Jews, but he would not have conducted a systematic campaign to annihilate the Jewish people worldwide.

Equally astonishing is Dr. Lukacs' failure to discuss the Holocaust and its implications for the 20th century. He never mentions the annihilation of the Jews. Yet surely any account of the 20th century has an obligation to grapple with the meaning of the most advanced European society's sudden descent into utter barbarism.

Anyone reading this book is entering a Brobdingnagian world where history is turned upside down. A confused welter of prejudices and passions, "The End of the Twentieth Century" bears a striking resemblance to the very nationalist phenomenon it purports to diagnose.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.